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America, The Middle East and the Cop on the Beat

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Every once in a while, geography, its cousin geology, along with geo-economic interests, together raise their heads and signal that the world we know is changing. Usually it takes a crisis to recognize this transformation and the crisis itself then pales in a historic perspective to the changes that have taken place.

And that is exactly what has been happening during the last six months in the Middle East. Whether it is the current state of affairs in Egypt, the war in Syria, or the new administration in Iran, the geo-political reaction signifies much larger global changes than is obvious in each of the events itself.

Saudi Arabia, whose foreign policy since the founding of the Kingdom has been essentially covert, has now changed its modus operandi. First, it publicly pledges aid to the Egyptian regime and in doing so has put the United States in a strange position. As the New York Times headline on August 20th stated in regards to this, "Offer Undercuts U.S. Leverage Over Cairo." Just this past week, Saudi Arabia very publicly renounced a seat on the UN Security Council (a seat that it has been seeking for the last two years), as a protest over actions by Russia and China in the council on Syria, and a growing exasperation with the U.S. on its policy towards Egypt, Syria and Iran.

Without a doubt it is in the Saudis' interest to have an autocratic government in power in Cairo that can presumably help thwart various Islamic radicals. But why go public now? The Saudis have pursued the same policy covertly for years.

The difference is that now geography and trade are reshaping global alliances, forcing the Saudis to re-look at how they have carried out their traditional policies in both the Arab and non-Arab world.

For the Saudis, the U.S. fracking phenomenon is a vastly disruptive game-changer. By definition, as the U.S. becomes the new energy giant, it becomes free of its dependency on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. And with this freedom, the influence that the U.S. has over the Saudis, what in business school is called the buying power of the customer, is diminishing.

The Saudi Arabian/U.S. relationship was always a relationship of pragmatism. There was never a commonality of culture and history that would sustain the relationship once the economic need began to wane. What cemented the relationship was oil, petro dollars and a bizarre quid pro quo that said the U.S would protect the kingdom if they would, when necessary, modulate oil prices by increasing output and also act as a behind-the-scenes restraining conservative force. Fracking has changed that. The old days with pictures of FDR with King Saud or both Bush presidents befriending the Saudi Ambassador prince are now history.

The United States now has less influence on Saudi behavior not because of declining American economic power, but because we are no longer an important customer for their oil. America's rapidly changing energy dynamic is forcing the Saudis to re-invent their foreign policy.

Beyond energy, geography and geology are changing the Middle East in other ways. Egypt has been the intellectual driver of the Middle Eastern World for centuries, but its strategic importance lies in the canal. Due to global warming, the canal's importance could be beginning to change. The first container-transporting vessel sailed this August to Europe from China through the Arctic, rather than through the Suez Canal. Using the arctic passage to deliver goods from China to Europe takes 35 days compared to an average of 48 days going through Suez and the Mediterranean Sea. And although the president of Maersk, the world's largest container shipping company, has denied the practicality of this route for the foreseeable future, one always has to question statements from the oligarchical company when competitive changes are at hand.

For the United States the question is, why should it continue to be involved in the Middle East at all? The cold war has been over for decades and we are no longer playing a game of chess with Russia over our spheres of influence. Most importantly our singular need to protect the American supply line of Mid-Eastern oil diminishes daily.

Of course the practical reasons are to prevent radicalism and its sister, terrorism, and to protect our only culturally affinitive ally in the region, Israel.

But these practical reasons now lack an economic rational, and have turned into the larger discussion, the cop on the beat issue. With all the changes in global relationships and economics, America is still the cop that patrols the system. Ironically in the Mid-East, the United States is now protecting more of China's oil flows through the straits of Hormuz and the counter flow of Chinese goods to Europe through the Canal than it is protecting its own commerce.

This American protection is necessary for preventing both chaos and the severe economic harm that could be done to the United States by a global economic meltdown.

Although the argument for America being the cop is clear and logical, it is also very esoteric. The real issue is, how does the U.S. maintain its role as cop given our domestic politics? If it is a given now that protecting our energy supply lines in the Middle East is no longer an issue, then the most isolationist members of Congress will surely begin to question America's role in the Middle East. We have already begun to see this in some of the reactions when the Syrian vote was proposed. This thinking, along with budgetary fights, will put severe political pressures on the Unites States to re-think its traditional role.

How do you explain to these members of Congress that the global economy is now totally interwoven with America's economy, and until the world comes up with a better idea for a "cop," the American role is vital ?